The Remarkable Burney Family

A General History of Music, by Charles BurneyFanny Burney – wrote novels nobody reads any more, was lady-in-waiting (actually, ‘Second Keeper of the Robes’) to Queen Charlotte but hated court life (including being chased around the gardens of Kew by George III during one of his ‘mad’ phases), married a French émigré, underwent a mastectomy without anaesthetic and survived both it and the perils of post-operative infection to live another thirty years. And wasn’t her father something to do with music?

We wanted to include Dr Charles Burney’s 4-volume General History of Music on the CLC music list, and it is at last about to be published, after serious difficulties in getting the pages (especially the music examples, the print quality of which is not good) clean and legible enough to reproduce. Our advisors also suggested the Memoirs of Doctor Burney, which he left incomplete at his death and which Fanny worked up into an account which places as much emphasis on her father as a leading light in European literature and society as it does on the musical talents (as performer, composer and critic) which brought him fame and status in his own day. And we also decided to reissue Charles Burney’s Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the Abbate Metastasio: interesting that Burney should have chosen to present the life of a poet and librettist rather than of a composer.

While all this was going on, in the context of our collaboration with the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, we came across a James Burney, sailor, who published a 5-volume Chronological History of the Discoveries in the South Sea or Pacific Ocean. Was he by any chance related? A check on the invaluable (and well illustrated) website of the Burney Centre at McGill University ( revealed that James was the second child (and first son) of Dr Charles, and therefore Fanny’s older brother.

Those of us who find it difficult to imagine sending a child to boarding school at the age of 7 or 11 can’t conceive of the circumstances in which a 10-year-old boy would be sent to sea as a captain’s servant; but our readings in the Naval Chronicle volumes (especially the death lists) reveal how common this practice was in the eighteenth century. James survived and apparently flourished; he took part in the second and third of Captain Cook’s voyages, and was a witness to Cook’s death in Hawaii. After promotion to captain, his naval career was cut short when illness forced him to return to England in 1784; on his recovery, he was refused a further command, and in effect forcibly retired. The McGill website suggests that he had a tendency to insubordination, and possibly republican sympathies: one wonders whether the cosmopolitan circles in which his father moved influenced him when he was home on leave? His own friends included Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt and (inevitably) Sir Joseph Banks, to whom the Chronological History is dedicated. Dr Johnson was a friend of his father, and plays a large role in Dr Charles’ Memoirs.

Back to the books: the General History of Music does what it says on the tin: it is an immensely learned, chronological narrative, from antiquity, especially ancient Greece (Vol. 1), to the eighteenth century (Vols. 3 and 4), with copious music examples and other illustrations. Burney researched the work during two European tours in 1770 and 1772, each of which produced a book, on France and Italy, and Germany, the Netherlands and the United Provinces (i.e. modern Belgium) respectively. The Metastasio memoirs (in three volumes) have a preface in which Burney declares that ‘if these letters had come to my hands previous to the publication of my General History, several points relative to the progress of the musical drama would have been illustrated from them’. He also praises Metastasio’s writing style, ‘superior in elegance, grace, and facility, to any other Italian prose with which I am acquainted’. Burney translates and edits Metastasio’s letters to composers, producers and singers all over Europe, and especially to the legendary castrato Farinelli, the opera superstar. Farinelli’s career was intertwined (until he left the stage to enter the service of Philip V of Spain, whose fits of depression his singing could apparently cure) with that of Metastasio, whose libretti were in demand all over Europe from his debut in 1722 to his death in 1782 (and beyond – Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito (1791) was set to Metastasio’s words). The recent revival of interest in Baroque opera, in which all the heroic, flamboyant and passionate roles were written for castrati, has meant that Burney’s work has become an important source for information about this (to us) extraordinary genre.

Fanny Burney’s tribute to her father, which draws on her own memories as well as his incomplete memoir and other papers, inevitably emphasises his successes, his important friends, his standing at court – but she makes it very clear what a hard worker he was, and there are fascinating anecdotes of his social circle, including an affecting account of the death of Dr Johnson (Vol. 3).

James Burney’s Chronological History anticipates the work begun by the Hakluyt Society 40 years later: he gathers up, edits and sometimes translates early accounts of voyages by Drake, Magellan, Tasman, Dampier, et al. around and across the Pacific. The narratives are accompanied by charts and drawings from the original works: Vol. 2 (facing p. 367) has a delightful picture of the wildlife of the tip of South America, where mariners kill a sea-lion (apparently depicted by someone who has seen land-based lions but not the sea variety) for food, while a group of penguins chat on a nearby ice-floe, the buried bones of giant humans are excavated, and at the back, on the mainland, llamas (or vicunas or alpacas?) (which seem to owe a little to camels) gambol on the pampas and ‘ostriches’ (presumably rheas) graze.

It has occurred purely by chance (or rather through our ludicrous optimism about how much work it will take to get a clean page!) that all these books by members of the same family are becoming available in CLC at about the same time, but we hope the Burneys would have approved. . . And watch out for James’ History of the Buccaneers of America, coming soon!


This entry was posted in History, Literary Studies, Music, The Naval Chronicle, Travel and Exploration, Women's Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Remarkable Burney Family

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